Document created: 29 December 03
Air University Review, July-August 1973

Intelligence and Information
Processing in Counterinsurgency

Dr. Charles A. Russell
Major Robert E. Hildner

Throughout the history of warfare, from Biblical times to the present, accurate and timely intelligence has been of singular importance in the conduct of military operations. Most successful military leaders have clearly acknowledged the contribution intelligence can and does make to the achievement of victory.

In the years following World War II, intelligence assumed added importance with the outbreak of insurgency in many areas of the world, either as a result of the exploitation (frequently by Communists) of political, economic, and social injustice or because of the rise of nationalism and the concomitant disintegration of prewar colonial empires.1 Faced with the task of combating an elusive and often shadowy enemy deeply submerged in the indigenous population, governments and their military/internal security forces quickly realized that if they were to identify, locate, and destroy the insurgents, an efficient and effective intelligence service was essential. All too often, however, the government and its internal security forces had neither an intelligence system nor the basic framework upon which one could be built. By the time an effective intelligence network was created and operating, the guerrilla movement was firmly established, and the task of isolating and neutralizing it was not only extremely difficult but time-consuming and costly as well.2

Those governments that were able to create effective intelligence organizations and use them efficiently were normally successful in their counterinsurgency efforts. This was particularly true of the British campaign in Malaya from 1948 to 1960 and the Philippine operations against the Huks from 1946 to 1954.3 In both instances, accurate and timely intelligence was a crucial factor in defeating the insurgents. On the other hand, inadequate intelligence was a significant weakness in the French campaign against the Viet Minh in Indochina.4 By contrast, a much-improved French intelligence effort in Algeria was an important element in successful French operations against the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN).5

Thus, in many of the popular writings on counterinsurgency that have emerged in recent years, intelligence is regarded as the sine qua non of success. Sir Robert Thompson, a leading exponent of the value of intelligence in counterinsurgency, perhaps expressed it best:

If subversion is the main threat, starting as it does well before an open insurgency and continuing through it and even afterwards, it follows that within the government the intelligence organization is of paramount importance. In fact I would go so far as to say that no government can hope to defeat a communist insurgent movement unless it gives top priority to and is successful in building such an organization.6

Although intelligence is recognized as an integral and indispensable element of counterinsurgency, the major focus of its application has been against rural-based guerrilla movements. This is a natural consequence of the modern experience in counterinsurgency, which has been derived primarily from combating insurgency centered in the countryside rather than the cities. Yet there is increasing evidence, particularly in Latin America, to indicate that the focus of insurgency may be shifting from a rural to an urban environment.7 Should this shift continue, it will not only have a marked impact on current counterinsurgency strategy and tactics, virtually all of which have been formulated in response to rural insurgency, but also will place unprecedented demands on intelligence.8

The increased demands on a government’s intelligence/internal security apparatus stem from the very nature of urban insurgency itself. Lacking the need for the rural guerrilla’s conventionally organized military forces, the urban guerrilla instead depends, at least initially, on much smaller core groups of dedicated and well-trained “political revolutionaries.” Maintaining no fixed base and operating relatively independently of any centralized command structure, the urban guerrilla surfaces more briefly, strikes more swiftly, and disappears more quickly than does his rural counterpart.9

Using readily available commercial and public facilities to satisfy his basic survival and operational need for food, clothing, shelter, transportation, and communications, the urban insurgent relies on the anonymity inherent in the urban environment, coupled with tight security and rigid compartmentation, to protect him and his organization. Under such conditions, unless the urban guerrilla is engaged in some form of overt activity clearly and directly in support of his revolutionary goal, such as robbery, kidnapping, or assassination, he is invisible to both the police and the intelligence/internal security apparatus, and his organization is virtually impenetrable.

Despite these advantages, the urban guerrilla knows full well that a small group, no matter how dedicated, is unlikely to succeed in overthrowing the government. In order to succeed, he must expand his organization, not only in numbers but also throughout various segments of the society. At this point the urban insurgent movement becomes vulnerable to penetration by the government’s intelligence service. To achieve penetration, however, requires a massive intelligence network extending throughout every segment of the society or at least those segments likely to prove fertile ground for recruiting by the insurgents.10 A massive intelligence network is needed not only to insure that the intelligence service knows when the recruiting begins but also to insure that a sufficient number of the intelligence service’s agents are recruited into the insurgent movement. A large number of penetration agents is essential because of the security practices, particularly compartmentation, employed by most guerrilla organizations. Without extensive penetration, it is extremely difficult to obtain a comprehensive picture of the insurgent’s organization, capabilities, plans, and objectives and to identify its leadership core.

Effective intelligence, however, requires far more than the mete acquisition of information. As Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf, Jr., point out:

The ingredients of effective intelligence organization and operations are numerous and complex. An effective system requires not just collection of information from multiple sources (some degree of redundancy is essential) but also processing, classifying, evaluating, storing, and retrieving information. Indeed, modern technological progress in information processing and handling is probably more important for counterinsurgency than are changes in weapons technology.11

Thus, the speed, accuracy, efficiency, and effectiveness of information processing, particularly the collating and retrieval aspects, are of critical importance not only to the success of the intelligence effort but also to the overall success of the counterinsurgency program itself. The reasons for this importance are threefold.

To attack the infrastructure successfully and cripple the insurgency effectively, the counterinsurgent forces, particularly the intelligence service, must possess both an accurate picture of the underground’s organizational structure and a thorough understanding of the interrelationships of the component elements within that structure. While the information processing system can be of material assistance in providing these two requirements, it is particularly valuable in documenting the identity and function of underground members, thus enabling the counterinsurgency personnel to identify key personnel within the infrastructure so that they may be targeted for apprehension. This is achieved through what is known as a “dossier-building” capability, that is, the capability to link and retrieve fragmentary or nonsubstantive information concerning an individual which, in the aggregate, can constitute unmistakable evidence of membership in the insurgent infrastructure.

This documentation of membership in the underground structure is extremely valuable and important. Unless the counterinsurgent is certain that those individuals arrested or otherwise detained as part of the underground structure are, in fact, members, he can never be certain of the true progress he is making in his attempt to root out and destroy the infrastructure. Furthermore, apprehension of only those individuals whose membership or involvement with the insurgent underground is extremely well documented guards against indiscriminate arrest of civilians, which is likely to be counterproductive to the government’s efforts to win or hold popular support. In addition, neutralization of bona fide infrastructure members provides excellent propaganda material to illustrate the government’s effectiveness against the insurgency; helps to deter those contemplating either joining or otherwise supporting the insurgents; and provides a basis for proceeding against the apprehended underground member according to existing law, thus contributing to the legitimacy of the government’s entire counterinsurgency campaign.

In spite of the contribution that modern information processing technology can make toward strengthening the ability of less-developed countries to resist internal subversion and insurgency, very little use has been made of it by intelligence and internal security agencies in those countries. As a result of discussions with police and intelligence and counterintelligence officers in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, and Southeast Asia, we believe modern information processing is probably the least understood and one of the most neglected areas of intelligence and internal security operations.

There seem to be several reasons underlying the failure to adapt this technology to internal security and counterinsurgency uses. First, a basic ignorance exists regarding the manner in which modern information processing can be used for intelligence and counterinsurgency purposes. Few of the officers with whom we talked had any real appreciation of the improvement it can make in operational effectiveness. Many viewed it, at least initially, as “gadgetry” that might be nice to have for prestige reasons but not really necessary for mission accomplishment. A second reason is the very strict financial constraints placed on the operations of the agencies involved. Forced to compete for limited budgetary resources with other agencies and with existing programs, there is very little money available for an information processing system. Even if sufficient funds were available for the purchase of a system, many agencies believe they do not have personnel with sufficient technical knowledge or aptitude to operate or maintain it. When it was suggested that perhaps the system in use by another government department or agency could be adapted for intelligence or internal security use on a time-sharing basis, there was almost unanimous objection on the grounds that such use would entail an unacceptable risk of compromising ongoing operations, sources of information, operational techniques, and overall capabilities. In view of the very nature and mission of intelligence and internal security agencies, this point is well taken. Intelligence and internal security agencies can perform reasonably effectively in the face of many obstacles or handicaps, but there is a very real question as to whether they can perform with any degree of effectiveness at all if their own security has been compromised. A risk of compromise of this nature is one which no such agency is willing to accept or can afford to take.

Considering, then, the problems and objections associated with the introduction and use of modern information processing technology by those intelligence and internal security agencies faced with the task of combating an actual or potential subversive insurgency, it would appear that two basic steps should be taken. First, a maximum effort should be made to educate the leadership in both the application of this technology to normal operations and the benefits in terms of increased effectiveness that can be derived from such application. This education could be achieved, at least in part, by affording greater emphasis to the use of information processing systems in those U.S.-sponsored or conducted training programs for foreign police officials and military personnel assigned to intelligence and internal security agencies or units in their respective countries.

A second step would be the design and development of a low-cost, relatively unsophisticated, highly efficient, secure, and dependable information processing system for use by these agencies. This is essential, since it would be rather pointless to convince one he needs to improve his information processing capability and then be unable to provide a realistic means whereby that capability can be improved.

One information system which may be ideally suited for counterinsurgency is that currently being used by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI). It was designed and developed in 1964 for the Acquisitions and Analysis (A&A) Division of AFOSI’s Directorate of Special Operations. The A&A Division, among other things, exercises staff supervision of AFOSI’s worldwide counterintelligence collections program; prepares analyses, estimates, and special studies on organizations and activities of counterintelligence and security significance to the Air Force; and acts as the central repository for all collection reports generated by AFOSI field elements throughout the world as well as those reports furnished AFOSI by other intelligence and counterintelligence agencies.

Prior to development of the AFOSI system, all such collection reports were filed and retrieved manually, a process that was not only time-consuming but made recall ability and response time erratic and unsatisfactory.16 In addition, the space available for storage of these reports soon would be exhausted. It was evident that a more efficient information processing system was needed, and needed quickly, if the A&A Division was to continue meeting its responsibilities.

The current AFOSI system emerged following an extensive study of the A&A Division’s requirements and the capabilities of existing commercially available information processing systems. Its major purpose is to provide a single integrated system capable of retrieving individual reports as well as facilitating the detection and analysis of patterns and trends through the rapid collation of reported information according to variable criteria.

The basic principle underlying the system is the classification of reported information according to preselected criteria or characteristics, such as geographic location of incidence, group or organization involved (if known), type of activity or incident, source, date/time, etc., the assignment of simple numerical codes to each preselected characteristic, and then the use of these numerical codes, either individually or in combination, as the basis for storage and retrieval. The information or individual report itself is microfilmed on an aperture card identical in size to the standard IBM card. Each aperture card will have a microfilmed copy of as many as four 8-by 10-inch pages. By means of a key punch, the numerical codes are transferred to the aperture card, and retrieval is effected through the use of a collator programmed to sort out those cards bearing one or more assigned code numbers. Under this system, then, it is possible to retrieve not only a specific report dealing with a particular incident, organization, or activity but also all the reports regarding any specific organization, type of incident, or form of activity in any particular location or locations during any designated time frame. For example, the system is capable of sorting out within minutes all the reports dealing with antigovernment propaganda countrywide by month as a means of determining trends or patterns of activity. Similarly, any individual report dealing with a particular propaganda incident could also be retrieved in minutes. As another example, the system can be programmed to retrieve all the reports dealing with some aspect of a particular organization or its activities such as organizational structure, membership, finances, communications, recruitment techniques, security practices, and the like. This capability is particularly valuable in dealing with a known insurgent group when periodic reviews of available information are necessary for either analysis or targeting of intelligence resources.

Another feature of the AFOSI system is its capability to store and retrieve biographic or “dossier” data on individuals through the use of combined alphabetical and numerical coding. With this feature, it is possible to retrieve all reports in the system concerning a particular individual or the names of all individuals known or suspected of involvement in a particular type of activity. For example, within the counterinsurgency context, the system can be used to retrieve the biographic data cards on all persons either known or suspected to be part of some element of the insurgent infrastructure. Thus it would be a simple matter to retrieve the names and accompanying biographic data persons suspected of being couriers or intelligence agents or financial supporters an insurgent movement.

The information system now in use by AFOSI uses off-the-shelf equipment readily available through commercial sources. The basic components are a microfilm camera at produces the microfilm aperture card, reader-printer for either viewing the aperture card or printing a readable paper copy of the microfilmed report should one be needed, a standard key punch, a key-punch verifier that cross-checks the keypunched coding on the aperture card, a high-speed collator, and a 315,000-card-capacity storage bank.

One of the major attractions of this particular system is its low cost, both in terms of equipment outlay and operating costs. Total equipment costs are approximately $19,000, which can be reduced even further if some of the components are rented rather than purchased. Based on an annual input of 15,000 aperture cards into the system, yearly operating costs, exclusive of manpower and overhead, are about $1500.

Manpower requirements for system operation will vary according to the individual user’s needs, such as the number of hours the system is operated and the number of inputs fed into it. With the annual input of 15,000 aperture cards and operation of the system on a six-day, 48-hour week, four people are required on a full-time basis.

No special technical or educational qualifications are required for operating the system other than an ability to learn keypunching. Training time is also minimal. Experience has shown that to become fully qualified, the average person will need about 16 hours of classroom instruction and 24 hours of supervised on-the-job training, exclusive of key-punch instruction and training.

Two other aspects of the system are also worth mentioning. First, because it is a self-contained unit and no outside facilities are used for any of its functions, such as microfilm processing, security is particularly good. Second, although the AFOSI system is designed and used primarily for intelligence and counterintelligence information, it can readily be adapted for storage and retrieval of criminal incidents and investigative information as well. This feature would be particularly useful to an urban police department or other internal security agency responsible for both counterinsurgency and the exercise of the police function, since a single system would be able to handle all its information processing needs.

In the more than eight years the AFOSI system has been in operation, it has proven to be remarkably efficient, dependable, and trouble-free. The number of analyses, estimates, and special studies prepared by the A&A Division has increased more than 50 percent, research time required for preparation has been reduced by more than 60 percent, and response time has been cut by approximately 70 percent. In terms of storage space, the improvement was even more significant, with a net reduction of nearly 84 percent in the number of square feet required for file storage. In addition, downtime because of component mechanical failure has averaged less than 30 minutes per month.

There are, of course, a number of commercially available information systems that can be adapted for use by intelligence and internal security agencies. Our purpose here has not been to advocate the system in use by AFOSI but rather to illustrate that a relatively simple yet efficient and dependable system can be developed at reasonable cost to enhance significantly the effectiveness of intelligence and internal security agencies in coping with internal subversion and insurgency. It is not important which particular system is used; it is important that those agencies recognize the very real contribution that modern information processing can make to mission effectiveness and that serious consideration be given to its adoption. To quote Leites and Wolf once more, “. . . effective counterrebellion requires that [the counterinsurgent force] improve its capacity to collect, store, collate, evaluate, retrieve, and use information.”17

Hq Air Force Office of Special Investigations and
Air Command and Staff College


1. For a broader discussion of the origins and types of insurgency, see P. Kecskemeti, Insurgency as a Strategic Problem (RAND Corporation Memo RM-1560-Pr, February 1967), pp. 15-19. For a more detailed treatment of the root factors generating insurgency and the influence of Communist ideology, see also Charles A. Russell and Major Robert E. Hildner, “The Role of Communist Ideology in Insurgency,” Air University Review, XXII, 2 (January-February 1971), 42-48.

2. Major Edgar O’Ballance, “Thoughts on Countering Communist Insurgent War,” The Army Quarterly and Defence Review, October 1966-January 1967, p.73.

3. D. M. Condit et al., Challenge and Response in Internal Conflict, Vol I: The Experience in Asia (Washington: American University, Center for Research in Social Systems, February 1968), p. 464. An in-depth account of the role played by intelligence in the anti-Huk campaign is related in Napoleon D. Valeriano and Charles T. R. Bohannon, Counter-Guerrilla Operations, The Philippine Experience (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1962), pp. 44-64. See also Uldarico S. Baclagon, Lessons from the Huk Campaign in the Philippines (Manila: M. Colcol & Co., 1960), p. 17.

4. John J. McCuen, The Art of Counter-Revolutionary War (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1966), p. 115. See also Otto Heilbrunn, “Counter-Insurgency Targets: A Question of Priorities,” The Army Quarterly and Defence Review, October 1966-January 1967, p. 204.

5. Major Edgar O’Ballance, The Algerian Insurrection 1954-62 (Hamden: Archon Books, 1967), pp. 65, 68-69, 76, 80-81: and Constantin Melnik, The French Campaign against the FLN (RAND Corporation, Memo RM-5449-ISA, September 1967), pp. 70-72.

6. Sir Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency: The Lessons of Malaya and Vietnam (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966), p. 84.

7. Charles A. Russell and Major Robert E. Hildner, “Urban Insurgency in Latin America: Its Implications for the Future,” Air University Review, XXII, 6 (September-October 1971), 55.

8. Ibid., pp. 59-60.

9. A detailed description of the tactics and techniques of the urban guerrilla is contained in Carlos Marighella, “Mini-Manual of the Urban Guerrilla.” Written in June 1969, the Mini-Manual received widespread attention when it was published in the January-February 1970 edition of Tricontinental, the official organ of the Havana-based Organization of Solidarity of the People of Africa, Asia and Latin America (OSPAAAL). Marighella had broken with the Brazilian Communist Party and established the National Liberating Action (ALN), an urban-based terrorist group. He was assassinated in Silo Paulo, Brazil in November 1969.

10. Andrew R. Molnar, Undergrounds in Insurgent, Revolutionary, and Resistance Warfare (Washington: American University, Special Operations Research Office, November 1963), p. 10.

11. Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf, Jr., Rebellion and Authority: An Analytic Essay on Insurgent Conflicts (RAND Corporation, Report R.-462-ARPA, February 1970), pp. 135, 140.

12. Dr. Michael C. Conley and Joann L. Schrock, Preliminary Survey of Insurgency in Urban Areas (Washington: American University, Special Operations Office, 5 February 1965), p. 11.

13. Ibid., p. 8.

14. Sir Robert Thompson, No Exit from Vietnam (New York: David McKay, 1970), p. 166.

15. Leites and Wolf, pp. 78, 84.

16. The ability to retrieve relevant documents is referred to as “recall ability.” “Response time” is the period of time between initiation of a search for a particular document or documents and the retrieval of that document and its delivery to the requestor. See F. Wilfrid Lancaster, Information Retrieval Systems, Characteristics, Testing, and Evaluation (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1968), p. 55.

17. Leites and Wolf, p. 135.


Dr. Charles A. Russell (J.D., Georgetown University; Ph.D., American University) is Chief, Acquisitions and Analysis Division, Directorate of Special Operations, Hq AFOSI. From 1951 to 1971 he served in the Directorate of Special Investigations, Hq USAF. With Major Hildner, he has lectured at Air Command and Staff College and USAF Special Operations School on insurgency in the underdeveloped world and the role of counterintelligence in counterinsurgency and coauthored several related articles.

Major Robert E. Hildner (M.S., University of Colorado) is currently Chief, Operations Division, Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Rome, Italy. Previous assignments have been in the Directorate of Special Operations, Hq AFOSI; as a counterintelligence officer, OSI, Japan; and as Commander, AFOSI Detachment, Da Nang AB, Republic of Vietnam. Major Hildner is a 1973 graduate of Air Command and Staff College and with Dr. Russell has coauthored several articles on insurgency.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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